According to an August 17 article in The Guardian UK, lawyers representing Omar Awadh Omar, a Kenyan used car salesman who was kidnapped off the streets of Nairobi last September and rendered to Uganda, have accused the FBI and British intelligence agency MI5 and Ugandan agents of “cruel and unlawful treatment” in custody. A claim in Awadh's behalf has been filed in a British court. Despite the claims of FBI abuse, the case has not been covered in the United States.
Mr. Awadh has been charged with involvement in the July 2010 Kampala bombings, which killed 76 people who had gathered to watch the World Cup. The Somali group Al-Shabab has taken credit, saying the attack was retribution for the invasion of Somalia by the US-backed African Union Peace Keeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM, made up of troops mainly from Uganda and Burundi, went into Somalia after the Ethiopian Army left following their US-backed invasion of the country in 2007-2008.
Soon after the bombings, three Kenyan nationals were illegally rendered to Uganda, and Awadh is one of at least ten who were subsequent victims of rendition to Uganda, according to Open Society Justice Initiative fellow Clara Guttridge.
According to the court claim, as described by Ian Cobain of The Guardian UK, “the Americans punched, slapped, threatened and sexually humiliated Awadh while questioning him about alleged connections with Islamist militants in east Africa and trying to persuade him to become an informant. At one point, Awadh's lawyers allege, the British intelligence officer joined in the abuse by stamping on their client's bare feet while demanding answers to his questions.” He was also allegedly threatened with further rendition to Guantanamo, while an Ugandan agent “forced” a gun into Omar's mouth.
Last year, Gutteridge reported much the same about abuse meted out to Awadh, noting that after six months in prison, he did not know the nature of the charges against him. In fact, Awadh's attorneys state that FBI and British agents, who began interrogating him immediately after his rendition, wanted him to name British individuals with purported links to Somalia. He was not even questioned about the Kampala bombings.
Dean Boyd, spokesman for the National Security Division of the US Department of Justice, responded to my email query on the Omar case last April. “The United States supports the Ugandan government's efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the July 11, 2010, al-Shabaab terrorist bombings in Kampala …” Boyd said, explaining, “The overall investigation of the July 2010 bombings is a Ugandan-led effort.”
Boyd admitted “the US government has worked with the Ugandan government to investigate the July 11 Kampala bombings. In our support to and engagement with the Ugandans, we continue to stress the importance of respecting human rights, the rule of law and due process,” Boyd said. While I asked “what instructions were given to FBI or Justice Department officials in regards to handling evidence of torture or other crimes by the RRU?” Boyd offered nothing more specific. He did deny any US role in the rendition, however.
According to Awadh's wife, her husband has been refused medication for a kidney problem. In addition, he has been ferried back and forth between Luzira Maximum Security Prison and the headquarters of the Ugandan police paramilitary group, Rapid Response Unit (RRU), for repeated interrogations.
There is also evidence that some of Awadh's torture has been psychological in nature. According to Cobain, “During his fourth session, Awadh says he was shown a series of pictures depicting a woman in a swimsuit, the same woman looking into a mirror which gave the impression she was overweight and the same woman on a drip [intravenous], before being asked a series of bewildering questions. He says he was also punched in the back during this session.”
New Guantanamos in East Africa?
Gutteridge noted last year, “Omar Awadh's case raises serious concerns that the FBI is running – with British complicity – what is essentially a sort of decentralised, outsourced Guantánamo Bay in Kampala, under the cloak of legitimate criminal process.” According to Cobain, the FBI was responsible for “most of the mistreatment” of Awadh. Meanwhile, British lawyers “are demanding that the government disclose any information it holds that supports their claim that 'the UK Security and Intelligence Services have become mixed up in serious wrongdoing'.”
The Kenyan renditions to Uganda are highly reminiscent of another report by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation last month that describes a number of renditions of Kenyan nationals to Somali black site prisons in Mogadishu. There, CIA and Joint Special Operations Command agents appear to be brain-trusting the operation, despite a US presidential executive order in January 2009 removing the CIA from operation of such prisons. According to Scahill, “Human Rights Watch and Reprieve have documented that Kenyan security and intelligence forces have facilitated scores of renditions for the US and other governments, including eighty-five people rendered to Somalia in 2007 alone.”
In Kampala, however, with a stronger central government and more established police and paramilitary forces, the prisons are run by the Ugandans, but American agents, in this case the FBI, appear to have a heightened presence and may be calling many of the shots.
According to his bio at The Soufan Group, FBI agent Don Borelli led a 60-person team to Uganda in July 2010 “to assist the Uganda Police Force in their investigation” of the Kampala bombings, “the largest FBI deployment since the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.”
Only two days prior to Omar's kidnapping off the streets of Nairobi, two Kenyan human rights defenders were arrested after they arrived in Uganda, having come to investigate allegations of maltreatment by Kenyan prisoners held on counterterrorism charges in Uganda. The two – Kenyan high court advocate Mbugua Mureithi and Al Amin Kimathi, executive director of the Kenyan NGO, Muslim Human Rights Forum – were reportedly seized by plainclothes police, hooded and threatened with death or disappearance, before being handed over to the notorious RRU.
Mureithi was released after three days, while Kimathi, despite protests from human rights organizations, remains in prison. Uganda also detained and deported Hassan Omar, commissioner of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission and three other human rights defenders who had sought a meeting with Uganda's Chief Justice “to discuss the illegal transfer of several Kenyan nationals to Uganda and the continued detention of Kimathi.” Meanwhile in May 2011, Kenya deported Gutteridge, citing “national security” concerns.
According to James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Kenyan actions “represented a flagrant attempt to silence legitimate inquiries into human rights abuses committed in East Africa in the name of countering terrorism.”
The RRU itself was singled out in a special 59-page report by Human Rights Watch last April. Entitled “Violence Instead of Vigilance: Torture and Illegal Detention by Uganda's Rapid Response Unit,” the report detailed a pervasive pattern of abuse.
The unit's personnel typically operate in unmarked cars, wear civilian clothing with no identifying insignia and carry a variety of guns, from pistols to larger assault rifles. The unit's members have on some occasions transported suspects in the trunks of unmarked cars.
Human Rights Watch also found that the unit routinely uses torture to extract confessions. Sixty of 77 interviewees who had been arrested by RRU told Human Rights Watch that they had been severely beaten at some point during their detention and interrogations….
Detainees were beaten on the joints with batons over the course of several days while handcuffed in stress positions with their hands under their legs. Human Rights Watch also found that RRU personnel regularly beat detainees with batons, sticks, glass bottles, bats, metal pipes, padlocks, table legs and other objects. In rare instances, the unit's officers inserted pins under detainees' fingernails or used electric shock torture.
In a October 19, 2009, State Department cable from Ambassador Jerry Lanier, US Embassy in Kampala, to Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs Johnnie Carson, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, the RRU was singled out along with a number of other “para-military outfits” about which there are “numerous, credible allegations of unlawful detention and torture.”
The State Department cable also outlined US interest in the development of Ugandan oil resources, after an important discovery made only a year prior to the US-backed Ugandan invasion of Somalia. It's worth noting in the quote from the cable below, given the current situation in Libya, the role Libya's TamOil played in the competition over this new resource development.
23. (SBU) In October 2006, Canadian firm Heritage Oil announced the first oil discovery on the shores of Lake Albert. The British firm Tullow Oil, has made major discoveries both around and under Lake Albert and has plans to begin producing and exporting crude oil by mid-2010. Libya's TamOil is the primary investor in a proposed pipeline from Uganda to Kenya to import fuel and possibly export crude. Chinese firms are also interested in expanding investments in Uganda's oil. The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) is funding a feasibility study for a refinery in Uganda. Exxon/Mobile is considering a visit to Uganda later this year.
24. (SBU) Our message: Uganda's oil resources could and should be a boon for economic development and make the country less dependent on foreign assistance. We wish to support transparent management and prudent investment of oil wealth in the years ahead. LANIER
The US has been very aggressive in Eastern and Northern Africa in recent years and this is possibly related to the new oil discoveries, though the US says it's due to the operations of al-Qaeda. But whether it's in Libya, or with Islamists in Kosovo, the US has had little trouble allying itself with Islamic fundamentalists or corrupt torturing governments when it wishes to. Indeed, the CIA and Saudi Arabia in the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s funded Arab and Afghan fundamentalist Mujahideen with billions of dollars. Much of what has happened since then in relation to the growth of terrorism could be considered “blowback” from the policies of those years. Hopefully the US press, including progressive bloggers, will pay a lot more attention to what is happening in the name of counterterrorism in this new front on the supposed “war on terror.”